When disaster strikes | John Rizzo

Civil Protection Department director JOHN RIZZO discusses whether Malta is logistically prepared to handle large-scale emergencies, in light of unanswered safety questions arising from Sunday’s ‘Paqpaqli’ crash

Civil Protection Department director John Rizzo. Photo: Ray Attard
Civil Protection Department director John Rizzo. Photo: Ray Attard

It is perhaps an unpleasant reality, but in the aftermath of accidents such as the one at last Sunday’s ‘Paqpaqli Ghall-Istrina’, talk will inevitably turn to the question of responsibility and accountability.

A total of 26 spectators were injured at Sunday’s motoring display – some grievously – when a ‘supercar’ spun out of control and crashed through the metal barricades and into the crowd. The incident is now the subject of a magisterial inquiry, but already there are indications that culpability may prove difficult to pinpoint… not least, because the event in question was organised under the auspices of the Office of the President of the Republic.

Apart from the legal minefield this entails, there is also the issue of responsibility for safety standards at a licensed public event. After the crash, John Rizzo – formerly Police Commissioner, but since 2013 the director of Malta’s Civil Protection Department (CPD) – told the press that safety precautions did not fall within the CPD’s department. The police issued a similar statement, as did the proprietors of the venue, Malta International Airport.

This leaves the question unanswered… so I thought I’d raise it as the opener for this interview. Rizzo has already painstakingly explained over the telephone that he cannot comment specifically about Sunday’s crash because of the ongoing inquiry. So let’s keep it general instead.

Under normal circumstances, how does the chain of responsibility for ensuring adequate safety standards work? Who is ultimately responsible: the organisers, the authority which issued the permit... or someone else altogether?

“Generally speaking, it is the entity that licensed the event that is responsible for the safety conditions,” he begins. “But here I must clarify a misconception about our role. The CPD doesn’t issue licences or permits. Not just for last Sunday’s event, but for any event of any kind.” 

Unlike other departments, he explains, Civil Protection has no executive powers. “Very often we are consulted, but all we can do is offer advice. When it comes to crowd events, we are often approached with requests for support: to be present on site with fire trucks, for instance; to be prepared for any eventuality so that if something does happen, we would be in a position to intervene immediately. That is more or less the extent of our role.”

To give an example of crowd events, Rizzo reminds that the night before the accident Notte Bianca took place in Valletta. “We spent the whole night there, in various parts of Valletta. We had a control room there, too. And this weekend there is another event: the Mdina Classic Car grand Prix. We’ve been asked to provide fire engines, so that we’d be in a position to respond rapidly if anything happens… as, unfortunately, happened last Sunday…”

The presence of the CPD at Notte Bianca was indeed very visible, as I can confirm myself. But is this form of safety precaution actually mandated by law… or does it depend on an optional request by the event organisers? 

“You have to distinguish between official government events, and privately organised ones. In the case of Sunday’s Grand Prix in Mdina, we were invited – if you like – to be present, against payment by the organisers.”

The same goes for government events, he adds, with the difference that government always consults CPD as a matter of policy. 

It seems, then, that no direct legal obligation exists to provide safety precautions. Rizzo nods, but quickly adds that the licensing body does have the responsibility to ensure adequate safety levels.

“The authority that issues the permit, rightly so, has the executive power to demand safety precautions. Now: I think that – but this is something for the authorities concerned to look into – even if the authority doesn’t understand safety issues itself, it should always ask for advice… and also for certificates from architects, safety certificates from engineers, and so on. And this does happen, all the time. But I must stress that I am talking generally here, about the role of the CPD in such emergencies…”

Moving on from legal considerations, there is also the question of logistics. Here, Sunday’s crash may be seen to have a silver lining: if safety standards were lax from an organisational point of view, the actual life-saving response – both in the immediate aftermath, and also at hospital afterwards – was prompt and efficient.

But this raises the issue of whether Malta’s civil protection capability is sufficient for larger, full-scale disaster scenarios. Earthquakes and tsunamis automatically spring to mind, although – as Rizzo hinted earlier – it could also be just a case of multiple accidents happening in different places, overstretching the CPD’s resources.

After all, its remit does not cover only public festivities, but also daily interventions such as rapid response to accidents, firefighting and so on. Add to this a calendar of organised events that just seems to keep getting busier – not to mention one-off events such as CHOGM – and it becomes debatable whether the CPD can actually stretch far enough to cover all eventualities.

How many people are employed with the CPD, exactly?

“At present, 170, on an operational basis. But they are divided into three shifts, so at any one time we’ll have just over 50 officials in the field. And we have five stations in Malta and Gozo, manned 24 hours a day. Bear in mind we have the responsibility and duty to provide rescue services in all situations that may arise. That includes road accidents, grass fires that break out in summer… So it’s important not to drain the department’s resources…”

Are the present resources sufficient to cover these responsibilities?

Rizzo pauses before answering. “I believe there is need for another fire station in the centre of the island. That’s where the population density is the highest: you have large towns like Birkirkara, Qormi, Santa Venera, Sliema, St Julian’s, Gzira… There is also the highest density of hotels and places of the entertainment, and these places are more vulnerable to accidents because they rely on things like high voltage lighting, to give an example. Or gas, among other known causes of accidents. We also know that soon there will be high-rise buildings, too. These will present new challenges.”

As things stand, Rizzo admits more resources are needed. “I believe that the response time we achieve at present, with the current resources, needs to be drastically reduced. You will surely agree with me that every minute makes a critical difference, especially when dealing with fire.”

For this reason, he adds that the new station is a top priority for the department. Has the matter been discussed with the authorities?

“Yes: I’ve already discussed the matter with the finance ministry, obviously, so that the financial means can be provided. They have agreed with the idea, and in fact we’ve already identified a place in Cannon Street, Santa Venera – very close to the main bypasses – from where we could reach these places within minutes. The application to MEPA has already been submitted.”

He points towards a pile of papers on the desk. “Those are the plans. We hope it will be ready in two years’ time...”

What about human resources? Are the 170 personnel sufficient for today’s exigencies… and, more pertinently, for the exigencies that may arise in future? Rizzo has already alluded to the imminence of high-rise, with all its logistical challenges. 

“I can only talk about my own tenure, and I haven’t been here very long; it’s been two and a half years. But the first thing I did when I got here was to take stock of the department’s resources. Personally, I felt that – to give a better service, and to improve the response time – a radical change was needed. We needed more human resources: and, thank God, we have recruited 42 new members in the last two years, plus another 14 ex-Enemalta employees. That was an increase of around half the human resources we had two years ago.”

Apart from assistant rescue officers, Rizzo’s early assessment concluded that there was a shortage also in the administration department. “We now have specific managers for particular areas: for processing MEPA requests for assistance … for private homes, and other specific operational areas; we have a manager for USAR (Urban Search and Rescue)… the department is growing. Today, I feel we’re in a better position than we were before. But I’m not saying this is enough.”

Equipment was another area that needed urgent attention.  “This year we have invested in protective clothing for all our members. Fire-suits alone cost the department around €100,000… not counting the fire helmets, fire boots, and other vital equipment necessary for firefighting.” 

Speaking of costs – and given that Budget 2016 is next week – what sort of allocation is Rizzo expecting for the CPD? 

“Let’s just say that I’ve made my requests, and they are realistic requests based on the actual requirements of the department. To give one example: among the resources I felt we needed to change was Malta’s entire fleet of fire engines. We are talking about roughly 45 vehicles, and to put you in the picture: the smallest fire engine you’ll find on the market costs around €130,000. Large fire engines, of the kind one would expect a national civil protection department to have, are around half a million euros. So we’re looking at a capital expenditure of eight to nine million, just for fire-engines…”

He smiles. “You might be thinking, look how I’ve panicked the government! But they understood. At present the country has a fleet which was obtained through the Italian protocol in 1998: which means they have been on the road for around 16, 17 years. They operate on terrain which is not always ideal… in brief, they are obsolete and need to be changed. The Finance Ministry understood the need, and together we’ve drawn up a plan to replace the fleet within five years.”  

One new fire engine – “flaming new”, he jokes – has already arrived, and another two are expected in time for CHOGM next month. Another seven will arrive by the end of February. And €2.56 million have been allocated to buy another 12 in 2016, on top of those. “This means we’re already within reach of half our target to change the whole fleet…”

All the same, the number one priority remains another. “Apart from a new station in the centre of the island, we urgently need to have grounds to carry out training. Unfortunately we don’t have the space necessary for what is the most important requirement. Even just when it comes to fire fighting: it’s a very technical area which requires very specific training. USAR is another: we’ve just acquired six specially trained dogs from the Czech Republic, which can sniff out survivors trapped under debris.”

As things stand, he adds, most of the training that takes place is confined to collaborations with other countries, mostly financed by the EU.

“In fact we’ve just sent 18 CPD members on a training mission to Lampedusa: it was a simulation of an urban search and rescue scene after a tsunami. Three weeks ago we had a similar EU-funded training session in Gozo: we simulated a collapsed building, with all the associated dangers, in a disused quarry. It was a joint venture with the civil protection departments of Palermo and Catania.”

He hastens to add that this sort of collaborative training is ongoing all the time – as if to dispel the impression that CPD members may not benefit from any training at all – but given the constantly changing circumstances facing the department, this is no longer sufficient.

“It is important for us to have a plot of land for an academy of our own. By ‘academy’ I don’t mean just a place to acquire theoretical knowledge – one way or another, that can be done with the resources we have today. What we need is an open space with the necessary equipment to be able to train for specific situations. Earlier you asked about high-rise, for instance…”

Yes, in fact I was going to ask if Malta is prepared – from a civil protection point of view – for changes to the urban landscape that will no doubt entail scenarios we have no experience of dealing with at all… such as, a fire breaking out on the 60th floor of a tower block. Would the new fire engines be able to reach that kind of altitude?

“You are right that the scenario is completely different. And so is the training that will be required… but to answer your question, it is not necessary for the fire engine to have a ladder that can reach 60 stories. That’s actually impossible, without the base – i.e., the fire engine itself – toppling over… especially when you consider the design of our roads. But there are other means. It is necessary today for buildings to be equipped with reservoirs… you need fire hydrants to pump water upwards to the top stories… with the necessary infrastructure in place you can overcome the problem of altitude. It’s a matter of planning.”

But this only takes us back to the point of departure. As with safety precautions at events, we can all understand the necessity… but is the legal infrastructure in place to ensure that buildings are equipped with all the necessary safety features? Or is it just an ideal we all aspire to, but which turns out to be non-existent when that fire actually does break out?

“As I said earlier, we don’t have executive powers to place our own conditions on developers. But yes, today there are practices in place to ensure designs comply with safety standards. Each time MEPA receives an application, it consults with us on safety issues: be it for new buildings or restoration. Even though we have no executive powers, we still make recommendations. They are based on the UK’s standards: we have an appointed manager to look over the plans, to assess what type of installations, reservoirs, etc., are incorporated. Whether they have automatic sprinkler systems in case of fire, for example… or enough escape routes. One thing that is very important is to have an evacuation plan. We take care of all that, through the advice we give to MEPA.”

Currently, the CPD receives between 10 and 15 MEPA applications for assessment each week.

Coming back to Sunday’s event: we’ve already established that Rizzo can’t comment directly on the accident in itself… but what lessons, if any, would he say we could learn from the experience in future? 

“As far as I am concerned there are always lessons to be learnt. Even when things go smoothly… because there can always be improvement. In this case, there is need for a post-mortem… which is in fact happening, in the form of an inquiry… and if it is determined that a review of procedure is necessary, then so be it.”